ST. LOUIS — One yard away from the end zone, Ravens running back Bobby Rainey tried the right side where he was met by a wall of St. Louis Rams’ defenders. He then cut back toward the middle and just as it looked like his progress was about to be stopped, Rainey burrowed his way over the line for the Ravens’ first touchdown.
All of the Ravens’ projected starters watched Thursday night's 24-21 loss in the preseason finale against the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome either from the sideline or from back in Baltimore, where they remained to rest up for next Thursday’s regular season road opener against the Denver Broncos.
With his team opening up the season on a Thursday, a reward for its Super Bowl XLVII victory, head coach John Harbaugh handled the final preseason game more cautiously than usual, holding back not only the starters but a handful of key reserves.
That left the stage for guys like Rainey, a diminutive running back from Western Kentucky who initially thought he made the Ravens opening-week roster last year only to get cut on the eve of the opener; rookie wide receivers Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown, both trying to earn one of the final one or two roster spots at their position; and strong-side linebacker D.J. Bryant, a Randallstown native hoping to find a long-term home with his hometown team.
It was one final opportunity for several players on the roster bubble to make a statement that they belonged on the team through Saturday’s 6 p.m. roster cut deadline from 75 to 53 players. Most of the team’s 53 roster spots were set long before kickoff but Harbaugh acknowledged on Tuesday that there were still a few players who could perform their way on or off the team.
Rainey, who is battling recent acquisition Delone Carter and Anthony Allen, for the third running back spot behind Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce certainly made the most of his opportunity. He scored two first-half touchdowns, both on second efforts, to send the Ravens into intermission with a 14-10 lead.
Also used as the kickoff and punt returner, Rainey rushed for 39 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries and caught one pass for eight yards. Meanwhile, Allen fumbled the ball inside the Rams' 5-yard line.
"I have no regrets," Rainey said. "I feel like I did everything I was supposed to do. Going into this last evaluation, I’m feeling pretty good."
With veteran quarterback Caleb Hanie getting the start behind the second-team offensive line, there were few chances early for the young receivers to make plays. But the game opened up in the second half and Brown, Mellette and Doss, three of the players battling for the final one or two receiving spots, were the beneficiaries.
Brown, the undrafted rookie out of Georgia, had four catches for 79 yards, including a nifty 50-yard touchdown that gave the Ravens a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter. In the Ravens' final two preseason games, Brown had eight catches 138 yards and two touchdowns.
"I felt like I went out there and I just played ball at the end of the day," said Brown. "I can’t control who makes the decisions or whatever but I feel like I just went out there and made plays and made an impact. Hopefully I get [a roster spot]."
Mellette, the rookie seventh-round pick out of Elon, finished with five catches for 70 yards while Tandon Doss, the third-year guy trying to hold off the rookies, had his best game to date with five catches for 75 yards.
“I thought the wide receivers all played pretty well," said Harbaugh whose team finished the preseason 2-2. "Tandon obviously played well. Marlon played well. LaQuan [Williams] played well. They all played well. It’s a good group.”
The defense, however, forced two turnovers with rookie Matt Elam jarring the ball loose from fellow first-round pick Tavon Austin (Dunbar) and second-year safety Omar Brown ripping the ball loose from Brian Quick.
Elam, who has been battling veteran James Ihedigbo for the starting strong safety job, had four tackles on defense in the first half and another on special teams. Battling for the fourth safety spot, Brown also had four first-half tackles.
Bryant had an active first half before he sustained what appeared to a significant left knee injury in a collision with teammate John Simon. Bryant was taken off the field on a cart, unable to put any weight on his left leg. Harbaugh later said that he had significant ligament damage and most likely would be lost for the season.
It was unfortunate end to Bryant's shot at making the Ravens' opening-week roster. Meanwhile, several of his teammates left the Edward Jones Dome late tonight wondering what is in store for them over the next 36 hours.
Harbaugh said that the Ravens will likely make some early cuts while other roster moves won't be settled until close to Saturday's 6 p.m. deadline. After that, the organization's singular focus will shift to the Broncos.
"It’s right around the corner," Harbaugh said. "There’s no need of an assessment of where we’re at. We just have to be ready to play and be our best. I like our team. I’ve liked it from the beginning. I’m looking forward to going out there and playing."